You Are How You Eat: the Relationship of Arts and Food

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We’re just about half way through Yam Yam! Festival, our six week festival of all things arts and foods, which has seen donkeys, goats and ferrets take over our garden, our cafe transformed into a delicious Phillippines pop up restaurant, a tour of discovery around Deptford’s West African shops and supermarkets, and loads more besides. This Friday and Saturday, Only Wolves and Lions will invite audience members to participate in the creation of a meal as part of a performance.  Head of Creative Programmes Raidene Carter reflects on the relationship between food and performance. This blog originally appeared on the Exeunt website. 

At the moment, one thing is certain: food is cool. Hipsters instagramming their cronuts, the queues round the block at the latest “no bookings” pop-up, and high concept tasting menus with endless courses; there’s something of a foodie revolution happening. In the midst of this abundance of delicious new foodstuffs to sample, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of not only what we eat, but how we eat. Food is sustenance. But it is much more than that too.

Yam Yam!, the Albany’s festival of arts and food, part of an 18 month programme of food related activity supported by The Big Lottery Food Fund, is, in many ways, a reflection on this. We have performances that celebrate the rituals of dining, shows reflecting on the history and cultural significance of what we eat, and events that revel in the fun of sharing food.

Unfinished Business’s Only Wolves and Lions (1st & 2nd November) is a great example. Each member of the small audience of 25 is asked to bring an ingredient with them and then, as part of the show, they work with their fellow audience members to cook up a delicious feast which they’ll share. The piece explores themes of community and isolation.

By asking us to collaborate on the creation of a meal, artist Leo Kay creates a temporary community, with each audience member having to take a role, negotiating and making compromises for the good of the group. Friendships are formed, sometimes arguments erupt and finally we all share in the fruits of what we’ve created together. The show proves, perhaps far better than a conventional drama might, the true value of being part of a community. Because the experience is framed as theatre, we look at what is, ultimately, an everyday act, in a different way and perhaps carry some of that new perspective back to our own kitchens and tables.

Kay isn’t the only artist exploring the experience of sharing food in theatre at the moment. At the Bristol Old Vic, The Table of Delights has recently been staged: a collaboration between a restaurant and Theatre Damafino.  Yumm-A-Yukka-Boo is currently touring, introducing young audiences to the foods from different cultures.

Perhaps this is symptomatic of the way we eat now. The abundance of food available to us, the speed with which we consume it, and the fact this is so at odds with what we know to be the experience of the vast majority of people alive today is demanding that we reconsider not only what we eat, but how we eat. It’s clear that performance practices – which have so much to do with the actions that define who we are – have a pivotal role to play in addressing this.

This idea of the performative role that the rituals of preparing and sharing food have to play in making communities runs through the festival. At the Albany we are surrounded by an incredibly diverse array of cultures and heritages. The influence of food in cultivating integration is clear on Deptford High Street, where fishmongers and butchers mingle with Vietnamese cafes, Nigerian bakeries and Chinese supermarkets.

Yam Yam! reflects this. Mazi Mas, for example, is a roaming restaurant that “showcases the culinary talents and diverse cultural heritages of migrant women in London”. During Yam Yam! they are hosting a series of three pop-up restaurants, focusing respectively on food from the Phillippines (17th October), Ethiopia (31st October) and South America (14th November). The experience for diners moves beyond simply consume the food; they will also find out more about how it is prepared and the rituals surrounding its consumption. The act of cooking becomes a means of empowerment for women who are often long-term unemployed and socially marginalised, and by sharing the food, diners and chefs alike come to a deeper understanding of one another’s cultures and experiences.

While events like this are less obviously “performance” or “art” in the conventional sense, we believe that by contextualising them in an arts space, we are inviting audiences to reflect on them differently, asking them to consider what and how they eat from a fresh point of view.

Raidene Carter, Head of Creative Programmes, The Albany

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